In the current issue of National Review, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru try to develop a respectable argument that President Obama is un-American. They dismiss the literal version that defines Birtherism. And they stipulate that the president and his allies want sincerely to improve the lives of their countrymen–no accusations of despotic conspiracies here. What Obama lacks, it seems, is a proper appreciation for our national creed. Lowry and Ponnuru dub this creed American exceptionalism: that view that United States has “a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.”
I have a lot of historical objections to the argument. Among other things, Lowry and Ponnuru rely much to heavily on the Reaganite holy trinity of Jefferson-Lincoln-Wilson at the expense of small-r republican and non-interventionist traditions. There’s also some curious, and apparently not playful, appropriation of theological language, as Matthew Lee Anderson observes. America is said to offer not only a economic system, but “an economic gospel”, as if our particular blend of public subsidy and private profit–which has existed at least since the internal improvements of the 1820s–were divinely ordained. But the most serious problem is conceptual. Lowry and Ponnuru don’t distinguish between two ideas, one of which can be called American exceptionalism, the other American exclusivism.
The exceptionalist can agree with the definition given above. As far as I can tell, Obama, almost all the influential figures in American politics, and most ordinary people do. But the exceptionalist also knows that the meaning of the ideals involved in America’s mission is open to interpretation–as in the Isaiah Berlin essay on which the title of this post is based. Further, he’s aware that they’re not the only ones worth pursuing.
Ordered liberty and self-government are important. But so are justice, peace, personal morality, and cultural excellence–areas in which America has not always been an inspiring model. From this point of view, there’s no contradiction between American exceptionalism and acknowledgment of the many ways in which America falls short, both of its own ideals and of those sometimes better represented by other nations. At the very least, it admits the possibility that we have something to learn from foreigners, even Europeans, who may be exceptional in their own ways.
American exclusivism, on the other hand, holds that the United States effectively represents and defends the only significant values, or at least the supreme ones. From this point of view, America is, as such, on the side of the angels. It can perhaps do wrong, but it can never be wrong.
This more extreme view is far from universal among our rulers and fellow citizens. What it is, as Lowry and Ponnuru admit, is the animating principle of the modern conservative movement. But do they really want to argue that movement conservatives have a monopoly of the American creed comparable to America’s monopoly of values? Surely there’s something un-American about that.